On April 15, Susan Chan, currently on the faculty of Washington State University in Pullman, gave an intermission-less recital in Kenan Hall on the Peace College campus that displayed both her considerable talents and her fascinating special interests. Chan is a Hong Kong native and a graduate of Indiana University's doctoral program in piano. She has studied with György Sebök, Menahem Pressler and James Tocco.
She opened with Beethoven's two-movement Sonata in E minor, Op. 90, which, according to the excellent oral commentary the artist gave (as she did for every piece, there being no notes in the printed program about the works being played or their composers), was purportedly inspired by a love affair between a count and an actress. The first movement represents the battle between the head and the heart and the second, a conversation with the beloved. She gave a fine rendition.
This was followed by a transcription for piano by Harold Bauer (1873-1951) of César Franck's Prélude, fugue et variation, Op. 18, for organ, which Chan said one critic described as "a flight into the hereafter." This reviewer found this version, new to his ears, more enjoyable than the original which can seem tedious due to lack of variety and the lesser precision of the notes themselves resulting from the very nature of the instrument. Busoni's transcription of the Chaconne from the Partita in D minor for solo violin, S.1004, came next. It was superbly rendered.
The remainder of the program was devoted to compositions by living women composers of Chinese heritage. First was "Cherishing Thoughts of Red Cliff" (1984) by Indonesian-Chinese Ning-Chi Chen (b. 1940 in Indonesia, now living in Hong Kong, former director of the China Orchestra), inspired by a Sung Dynasty poem of the same title. It depicts battle scenes using pentatonic melodies and features many marked contrasts. It was a truly lovely piece that I should very much like to hear again.
The second composer represented was Sharon Zhu (b. 1978) from Shanghai, who earned her undergraduate degree at Newcastle and is currently a Ph.D. candidate at Princeton. Her "Levocká Blena Peni" (2001) was inspired by a painting of this title that she saw in Slovakia depicting a woman known as the White Lady who fell in love with an enemy captain, was captured and ultimately beheaded-a rather sad and violent story. Chan worked on the piece with the composer in Princeton the previous week and played from the composer's handwritten score, the first time she used one in the performance. This was for me the least successful piece of the evening; perhaps when Chan has it memorized it will work better and perhaps the composer will wish to rework it some more as well?
The program concluded with two movements in reverse order from Scenes from a Jade Terrace (1988) by Chinese-Canadian Alexina Louie (b. 1949 in Vancouver, now living in Toronto, having studied in San Diego). Her instructions to the pianist say it should be played "as if intoxicated with the scent of a thousand blossoms." No. 2, "Memories in an Ancient Garden," is built on the Ying/Yang principle: black versus white keys, opposite ends of the keyboard, soft versus loud notes, for example. It includes notes produced by strumming the strings of the lower registers of the piano, with instructions as to which strings and what finger and manner of plucking written into the score which Chan used and later showed to me. This was an exquisitely beautiful piece beautifully rendered-the highlight of the evening for me, a must hear again! No 1, "Warrior," was less striking and less spectacular. Chan is working on No. 3 so as to be able to present the complete work.
Chan's performance throughout the evening featured precise, sensitive, and delicately nuanced playing. There were pyrotechnics in the appropriate places, but no gymnastics, just super-fine pianism. Is this the product of the legendary Oriental equanimity? It was certainly more pleasing to my eyes and ears than Atamian's performance that I had witnessed just days before. Her playing was mesmerizing; she held the audience entranced.
According to the good artist bio in the printed program, Chan has recorded two CDs, East West Encounters, on the Discmakers label, featuring music by Western and 20th century Chinese composers, and Pièces parisiennes, on the Hester Park label, featuring works by French Classical women composers Villeblanche and Bigot. She has also been featured on public television and radio in the USA and in Hong Kong. In addition to solo recitals such as this one, she is active as a chamber musician, as a soloist with orchestras, and as a masterclass teacher in the US, UK, Australia and Asia. I expect that we will hear more of her in the future, and hopefully more from her as well!
The turnout was disappointingly small. Perhaps people were putting finishing touches on their 1040s? They should have wrapped them up earlier and come out to this. Chan is an artist not to be missed on her next visit, which we hope will be soon and will include the complete Louie work. You should go out of your way to hear her.